Retro Review: Nicholas Nickleby

The world of Charles Dickens has enchanted and entertained us for almost 200 years. Dickens lived during a time of desperation and struggle.

This is evident in his classic novel, “Oliver Twist” and in the follow-up “Nicholas Nickleby”.

Dickens explored the treatment of youth in the 1830s. How they would be objectified, beaten, tortured and even killed if they didn’t heed to the wishes of vicious headmasters and even their relatives.

In the new cinematic adaptation to Dickens’ third full novel “Nicholas Nickleby”, we find the title character, played by newcomer Charlie Hunnan, being forced to move his family in with his crooked uncle, Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer). Uncle Ralph despises his destitute relatives and splits them apart. He sends Nicholas to teach a Dotheboys Hall for Orphan Boys.

Nicholas makes a pact that he will one day reunite his family and they will have a life of their own. At Dotheboys, Nicholas meets Smike (Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell) who he ends up saving from the wrath of the Dotheboys’ headmaster Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent). Together with Smike, Nicholas hatches a plan that would make his reunion dream come true. Just what will they have to do to accomplish such a pure plight.

“Nicholas Nickleby” isn’t the sharpest, wrenching or boldest pencil in the box. It is entertaining and there are some memorable moments but a lot of it seems watered down for the sake of time. I liked Hunnan, Broadbent, Plummer and Bell but there seemed to be a vacuum sucking the punch out of the film.

I remember those oodles of Jane Austen films that have been made in recent years and how they all seemed to have the same feel. It is strange that a rather powerful Dicken’s novel has been watered down to feel like one of those. I am not sure if the filmmakers were trying to make a film like the Jane Austen films but for me it seemed blatantly obvious that is what they were striving for.

This film should have been as powerful or at least tried to be as truly breathless as the darker moments in the 1968 film “Oliver!” For me the moment where Oliver says “Please sir may I have some more” is what a powerful Dickens moment should be like.

For as entertaining as the film is, I felt it didn’t do the literary classic justice.

(3 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer.

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